Australia in the Pandemic: Eye of the storm?

This is a snapshot of the pandemic as of March 2021, looking at what life is like in Sydney Australia, and looking out at the world.

The most recent case of a person infected in NSW , the state with Sydney as its capital, outside of quarantine was on March 17th and was a person working with arrivals in quarantine. In this case, the person infected was asymptomatic, and was the first case in 50 days. The general picture in NSW, and Australia in general, is that cases of Covid-19 are very rare right now. Is this the end of the pandemic, or the calm before the storm?

Life During the Pandemic In Sydney.

  • General Observations.
  • Schools.
  • Restrictions.
  • Quarantine and Arrivals.

History Of the Pandemic In Australia.

A page with a chronology of government announcements throughout the pandemic is available here and I have also saved a copy.

General Observations: Life During the Pandemic.

I asked friends in Sydney, other states, and also New Zealand: “Do you feel life is now the same as before the pandemic”.

Answers ranged from “yes”, to “I was just thinking that same thing”. There was not a single “no”. No one in Australia, or New Zealand, is dying, and almost no one is even catching the virus. One single case is an event that makes the national news.

Most measures have been removed or at least been relaxed. While schools had four to six weeks of home schooling from 27th of April 2020, through to just under a year ago from , that is all long in the past. Even the Cafe at school back open from June 26th 2020. But there are still some measures in place, and when people stop to think, there are still some differences. Now more people spend some time working from home, but now is seen as having very little to do with the pandemic. Plus, while other industries have recovered, tourism and aviation are still decimated.

Social distancing and mask wearing are very much over. Although in Sydney there is a limit of 50 visitors to your home at one time, that is not a limit most people exceed very often. Restaurants and Cafes have a ‘check-in’ process, but are otherwise as they were before the pandemic. I visited a mall in a different part of the city recently, and in that area there were still some people wearing masks, perhaps as many as 1 in 50 people? But near where I live, it is extremely rare to ever see anyone wearing masks. Major sporting venues and events do have a 75% of full capacity crowd limit within Sydney, and although that is less restrictive than the 50% limit in the city in Australia worst affected be the pandemic, Melbourne, the Sydney limit is more restrictive than all other cities in Australia, where full capacity crowds are permitted.

Generally life seems ‘post pandemic’. Life has forever been changed by the pandemic, but now feels to be in the ‘new normal’ and the only changes to life are insignificant inconveniences that have began to feel normal:

  • restaurant/bar/services check-ins
  • markers for positions in queues

Restaurant / Bar / Services Check-In.

Public places where people may remain for a long period of time, are required to get all groups to ‘sign in’. This does not include visits to shops or shopping centres, but does include doctors offices or other professional services and venues where customers visit in order to consume food or drinks during their visit.

This means the venue must request people either use a sign-in ‘app’ on their mobile phone, which logs the phone numbers of a member of the group visiting the venue, or provide the venue with their given name.

Several Apps have been released to record visit information, but the most popular is one in the state of NSW is provided the state government, and is verified to only retain data on visits for two weeks. I have spoken to people outside Australia who suggest in their country there would be mistrust of governments collecting data, but in Australia, if a computer system breached a commitment such as this, it would definitely find its way to the press. This makes a government app scrutinised for privacy a good option, but in reality, if people are really concerned of privacy, they can avoid giving correct or even any details. Of course, if an infected person was at the same venue, they would not be notified, but the information on locations visited by an infected person is published when such events occur. So check in is simple, and if did worry you, you can avoid providing actual details.

Lockdowns.

An ‘lockdown’ effectively commenced on March 31st, and began to progressively ease from May 15. Stores selling food remained open the entire time and most stores were open by May 15, but most restaurants and cafes were not viable for ‘dine in’ customers until July 1st, although food courts and outdoor dining had been able to operate from June 13th.

Schools.

When lockdowns started schools were exempt. In the state of NSW, school holidays were due to start in just over one week from the start of lockdown and schools remained open but by the time the holiday started, over 10% of students were remaining at home.

In NSW, government schools were technically not fully closed at all during the pandemic, but in practice, from the start of school term 2 on April 27th, schools requested students to study from home if possible and provided only online video lessons. However, schools after two weeks of staggered ‘1 day per week’, after an announcement on June 19th, pupils were officially back at normal from 25th of June 2020, week 5 of the term.

From June until year end, school attendance was normal, but with restrictions on sporting activities. While for the first month some schools had measures for social distancing, such measures soon because limited to restricting parent and visitor access to school grounds for special needs only. However, now in 2021, even parents can enter school grounds with no requirements for masks, distancing or any other measures. Classrooms or other school facilities have not been altered for the pandemic.

Working From Home.

A huge change has been working from home. Required for all ‘non-essential’ workers during lockdown, but remaining at least partially in place for all those able to work from home even after lockdown, many people now find a permanently altered work environment where working from home some days each week is either voluntary, or in some workplaces, mandatory. This is a huge social change and will be explored further in a separate exploration.

Restrictions.

Current Restrictions in place in Sydney until now are: *(all restrictions other than checking in no longer apply)

Up to 50 visitors from any number of households may visit another household at any one time. The total number of visitors includes adults and children. (A member of the hosting household is not counted as a visitor.)

No more than 50 people can gather outside in a public place which includes public parks, reserves, beaches, public gardens and spaces. 

A maximum of 300 people may attend a wedding or a funeral subject to the square metres rule applicable at the venue.

Indoor hospitality venues are generally restricted to one person per 2 square metres. For small venues, up to 25 people are allowed before the one person per 2 square metres rule applies.

All gyms in NSW must continue to apply the 4 square metres rule. 

Taken from NSW gov web site in march 2021, but continually revised on that page.

Mask rules are that masks are required:

  1. on public transport and at public transport waiting areas
  2. at airports and on commercial domestic flights
  3. if you are in an indoor area of a place of public worship and members of the congregation are singing.
    • (applies until March up until March 28th 2021)

Outside of the densely populated Sydney area, more relaxed rules apply, but the differences are being reduced.

Quarantine and Arrivals, Sport and Hollywood.

Anyone arriving in Australia other than from New Zealand is required to spend two weeks in supervised quarantine facilities. Even Hollywood stars such as  Natalie Portman, Matt Damon, Tessa Thompson, Chris Pratt, Christian Bale, George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Liam Neeson, Zac Efron, the ‘Rock’ and Sacha Baron Cohen, etc all must quarantine for two weeks, although some manage to organise their own accommodation.

In February, Melbourne hosted the Australian Open tennis tournament, an event which highlighted the complexity of bringing around 1,000 sporting stars into Australia during the pandemic.

For most people, international travel, with the possible exception of New Zealand, is still something maybe for the distant future.

In fact, during the period from June 2020 until December 2020, there were typically around 30,000 Australian passport holders/permanent residents waiting on a queue to be able to fly to Australia. During 2020, approximately 300,000 Australians returned from either visiting or residing outside Australia, increasing the population actually in Australia by even more would have arrived as immigrants, had not immigration been interrupted by the pandemic.

Flights are often unavailable, and quarantine facilities are typically at their limit, typically at around 6,000 per week.

Economics: Business Districts, Tourism and Airlines.

Overall.

Key economic indicators currently have employment as it was at the start of the pandemic, and the economy fully recovered. But under the surface, there are industries still impacted as discussed below. Other than those discussed below, other businesses are now more concerned about the impact of weather events than the pandemic. One of the reasons those impacted industries are not dragging down the overall economic outlook is because of government support programs, many of which are scheduled to end. Even still, already there winners and losers rather than everyone being fine.

Business Districts.

Cafes, food courts and other businesses based in business districts are all suffering due to the move to many people working from home. Ending the pandemic will do little remove the problems faced by these businesses as nothing will restore the amount of commuting to previous levels in the foreseeable future.

Tourism.

Actually in many places tourism is booming, and in others it is suffering. It turns out that normally almost as many Australians take holidays internationally as are replaced by international tourists, so there are almost as many holidays being taken in Australia as ever. Many holiday destinations have record booking levels, but then many others are really suffering. Domestic tourism holiday patterns are different that those of international tourism, so there are winners and losers.

Airlines.

There are no winners amongst those in the airline industry. Until international borders can re-open, airlines are is a desperate situation.

Vaccinations.

Vaccinations are run not by states, but the overall Australian government. Australia has not given emergency approvals to vaccines and politicians position the approach as not rushing. In fact, the entire push for vaccinations is driven be economics, and not health concerns. No one is getting ill from the virus now, so the need for vaccines is to enable opening borders because of those in the tourism industry who are suffering, and the airlines.

COVID-19 vaccination in Australia began on Sunday 21 February 2021, and will continue throughout the year with the goal of vaccinating all willing Australians before 2022. Front-line workers[a] and aged care staff and residents will be the first Australians to be inoculated, before a gradual phased release to less-vulnerable and lower-risk population groups throughout 2021. The Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) has approved two vaccines in Australia: the Pfizer–BioNTech vaccine on 25 January, and the Oxford–AstraZeneca vaccine on 16 February.[2][3] As of 22 March 2021, Australia has administered 295,562 vaccine doses across the country

COVID-19 vaccination in Australia as March 22.

Vaccination rates are way behind many other countries, but perhaps ahead of where it needs to be. Any risks from being vaccinated pale into comparison with the risks of being infected, but come back into focus when there is no real risk of being infected. Being vaccinated is not risk free, just degrees of magnitude less risk than the virus. But when you are free of the virus?

Return of the Storm: Paradise Ends, as Cases Return, and Variants Arrive?

Three threats loom on the horizon:

  1. Virus Variants.
  2. The Re-opening of borders.
  3. The combination or reopening and variants.

Virus variants. While there is basically no virus in Australia right now, that is only because quarantine is effective. Already, periodically, infections get through quarantine, and this seems to be an increasing rate of unexplainable cases occurring following quarantine. Hong Kong recently lengthened quarantine to 21 days. Originally, 99% of all cases were seen to be detected during two weeks of quarantine, but there is some evidence that variants may significantly increase the percentage of cases where incubation may take longer than 2 weeks, which is why Hong Kong has already increased the quarantine duration.

But really, cases breaking through quarantine just may the calm of the eye a little less comfortable.

The reopening of borders will almost certainly mean a significant reintroduction of Covid-19 into Australia. In theory, sufficient people will have been vaccinated to result in everyone infected as a result of this re-opening to suffer no symptoms, or those more comparable with a case of the common cold. But that doesn’t mean this in theory now tamed virus will not then be spreading a community not exposed to the virus for many months. It is possible that the reduce R0 spread rate of the virus in an infected community is below 1.0, and the virus does not spread. However, it is very likely borders will open without conclusive data. Australia will be one of the first countries to conduct this dangerous experiment, and government seems to regard ignorance as bliss as far as risks, as Australia possibly moves from virus free, to virus pervasive.

The combination of reopening and variants, will almost certainly allow community spread of this ‘now tame’ virus. It seems certain there will be many seriously ill patients and hospitalisations, and perhaps deaths. Far less ill people than from the the virus in an unvaccinated population, but vaccines are at best 95% effective, and everyone will get infected eventually if there is still spread and all measures to prevent spread are removed.

The World As Seen From Australia.

This section to be added.

Conclusion: The Eye will pass and it is going to get worse in Australia.

Currently, basically no one is dying, and no-one is even being hospitalised other than those arriving into Australia already infected.

People will get ill just from being vaccinated. Very few, but more than none. There could even be deaths. But then the border will open and eventually variants will arrive. This means virus is then expected to spread, but with symptoms no worse than the common cold for around a 95% efficacy vaccination program. So 5% (5% of 25 million is 1.2 million people) still get infected after vaccinations, and some of those are at the very least hospitalised. More than 5% if not every one is vaccinated.

So, compared to right now, when no-one is being infected, much worse.

Consider the data from Worldometers.info has cases in Australia so far at less than 26,000 together with the total of 1.2 million cases that would be expected if the virus spread into a vaccinated community, and you can see that even if only 1/40 of the population is exposed to the virus in the first year of open borders following vaccination, and 5% of those people are considered cases, then that first year would be worse than 2020.

The full info graphic from the Australian government, which confirms that data, is below.

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